Folks worldwide flock to this Renaissance city with more motives than one, but its oh-so famous, lip-smacking gelato is reason alone to visit. Unbeknownst to many, the tasty treat is said to boast Florentine roots in the city’s court, linking your modern-day indulgence with Florence’s glorious history.
Records of frozen desserts akin to today’s gelato date to ancient times; indeed, the word sorbet finds its origins in the Arabic word scherbet, meaning “sweet snow.”
Yet variations of sweet ice throughout history are plenty and differ from today’s creamy gelato. Legend has it that alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri created the first-ever gelato (fior di latte) at the court of Catherine de’ Medici as part of a courtly cooking contest. Others credit the mannerist Medici architect Bernardo Buontalenti for the invention of gelato alla crema, the popular egg-cream flavor whose recipe, crema Buontalenti, has been circulating since 1565.
Yet the popularity of ice cream around the globe—including its icy variations— begs clarification regarding the distinct Italian title. Although gelato is quite literally the Italian word for ice cream, the two frozen desserts have proven themselves more cousins than twins. Compared to American-style ice cream, gelato uses similar ingredients but in different quantities. In the Italian treat you’ll find more milk than cream and thus lower quantities of fat. Gelato is also churned at a much slower speed than ice cream, introducing less air into the base and creating a dense, flavor-packed consistency. Moreover, while many American ice creams are sweetened artificially, the natural sugar used in gelato creates smaller ice crystals, adding to its smooth and creamy texture. Usually stored at warmer temperatures, the main difference noted by fans is the softer consistency, a legitimate consideration for calling the two by their different names.
Around Florence, gelato options are plenty, so be wary of sky-high piles of brightly colored gelato: not everyone follows traditional recipes. For one of the most popular spots in town, head south of the river to Gelateria La Carraia, where you’ll find flavorful, extra-creamy gelato. This famous gelateria is renowned for its tasty delights vaunting a light and fluffy consistency.
Carapina is another fan favorite that follows traditional gelato-making methods. This cool gelato shop stays up to date with its flavors, occasionally introducing new ones (like peppermint), besides rotating seasonal fruit flavors on a monthly basis. Perché No, around since 1939, is a vibrant spot that offers traditional recipes and the highest quality ingredients, such as Slow Food Bronte pistachios, cardamom from Guatemala and Madagascar vanilla (with vegan options, too!). With Florence to thank for its launch, gelato is now sold all over this age-old city.